Study Wizardry

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
By guest

If you don't study, You Shall Not Pass!

[This is a guest post by Gandalf Saxe, a student at the Technical University of Denmark studying Physics and Nanotechnology, in which he explains how he used Beeminder to beat procrastination and spread his studying more evenly throughout the semester.]

Having been a university student for some years now, I’ve come to appreciate just how important it is to spread out your studying over the whole semester. It’s the single most important aspect of good study technique. I’ll even go so far as to advocate the opposite extreme of the typical student’s modus operandi: Go into exam crunch mode in the beginning and end softly, making sure to get plenty of sleep, exercise, and good food in the final days before the exam and spend that final time mostly working through earlier years’ exams.

Standard Study Schedules

The first thing you’ve got to do as a student before any semester starts, is to get a good overview of your weekly schedule. All lectures, classroom exercises, lab time, etc, should be written into some kind of schedule or calendar (I use Google Calendar). Then write in your other commitments such as job, sports, etc — anything you do that is regular (use several colors for a good overview). Finally, decide how many hours you must study each week to be successful — most universities have official guidelines on this. For me it’s 45 hours per week including both the scheduled stuff and home reading. My scheduled hours at the university totaled 22.5 hours, which left another 22.5 hours to study on my own each week. But this was just my minimum, and I’ve found that 48-50 hours is a more fitting number for technical subjects like math, physics, and engineering. Make sure you also note assignments and tests that will require an extra workload so you can anticipate busy weeks in advance and plan extra-curricular activity accordingly.

So you distribute all these hours and set up a Standard Study Schedule, bearing in mind that that is all this is — a standard plan, a point of reference.

“I figured my personal motivation and common sense were sufficient to learn”

In my early college days I didn’t do this. I figured my personal motivation and common sense were sufficient to learn. It worked for me in high-school after all. And it’s true that personal motivation to learn and excitement for the subject are the primary ingredients of educational success. But I kept getting mixed results: I ended up way too busy in the fews weeks before the exam. This should sound familiar to most students. I felt palpable progress once I started making Standard Study Schedules, writing all regular activities into my calendar and making clear to myself how much studying was needed at home, and approximately when I had time in my week for it.

Commitment Devices

In November 2011 I decided to add the final ingredient: a commitment device. More specifically: Beeminder. Through all of 2011 I had begun to experiment with all kinds of tracking — my sleep, time spent on all daily activities, GPS tracking of my running, and recording every weight lifted at the gym. I was exploring whether collecting data about my life could transparently and objectively reveal my habits and time usage, hoping it could also help me change them. What I found attractive in Beeminder was that it was designed around the idea of reporting in every day, trying to stay near the ideal “yellow brick road” The yellow brick road allows for some variation but at the same time requires you to stay true to your goal every day! This seemed a great way to counter my still-worst enemy, procrastination. Adding in a money contract so you lose $10 or $20 if you fail is an ingenious way to kick the motivation up another notch.

I set a very specific goal: 200 hours of study in November — 45.16 hours per week. This included lectures, lab time, homework, everything. Behold the result:

“Let Beeminder’s yellow brick road be your guide!”

Looking at the data in retrospect I was surprised by the amount of variance day-to-day. Even though the weekly average will typically come to around 45 hours, there are many days at 1-3 hours and at 9-12 hours of studying. I knew that it varied from day to day, but the sheer amount of variance surprised me. While some of the variance resulted from procrastination and distractions, most of it is actually okay and totally natural; we’re human, not machines. What’s not okay is to have several lazy weeks of 2-3 hours per day on average, then a crunch in the final two weeks before the exam of 10-12 hours per day. A short period of 2-3 hour days is fine, but even a single week of that will set you back too much in a typical semester. Unfortunately I did have a very late-nighter and a single all-nighter (note the big vertical jumps in the graph) which means I didn’t sail quite smooth enough. But the point is: let Beeminder’s yellow brick road be your guide! You can work hard for a few days and earn a buffer-day for when you’re worn out! This also encourages better sleeping and eating to make the extended work periods liveable, perhaps even enjoyable.

In the end the work has to get done. Your books, the examiners, and especially your future self don’t care what excuses you had for not doing the work. And all my experience tells me that the hardest part of studying (and in most matters) is taking the first step. It’s almost fictitious because it’s all up there in your head — that mental blockade of not wanting to begin work. The good news is that Beeminder solves that start-up problem elegantly. It tells you “just get going because you simply can’t afford NOT to do anything today”, and most often you keep on studying quite automatically thereafter. On other days I have no motivation issues, in which case Beeminder acts as a bank for my good conscience — the good work is converted into buffer time where I can relax or do other things.

Fine Print and OCD

“No particular 30 minutes will make or break you so 199.5 is as good as 200”

Racing towards finishing my first Beeminder goal I thought I was doing pretty well. But on the very last day I almost failed. The funny thing happened is that I didn’t meet my “200 study hours” goal for November, only 199.5 and the final half hour fell just on the other side of midnight! (Note that the final dot is orange instead of blue.) Had I failed? On the other hand I was still on the yellow brick road. I wrote to the Beeminder creators, Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule, with my question. Here is how Bethany answered:

You fulfilled your Beeminder commitment [even though] you can’t say you did 200 hours! The numbers don’t lie … but the month was still a total success, right? 200 is a nice, round, focal number to pick, but also completely arbitrary, and as far as academic success goes, there’s no particular 30 minutes that will make or break you, so 199.5 is literally as good as 200. Which is really what Beeminder is totally awesome at. It’s an incontrovertible record of what you actually accomplished, but it also allows for a little bit of leeway without degenerating into a fuzzy line that doesn’t have any sting.

Which was a good point for such a perfectionist, occasionally borderline OCD person such as myself. Without a tool like Beeminder it’s hard to tell that 199.5 is just as good as 200 hours.

Postscript

November was a great success and I’ve been using Beeminder on and off ever since. I don’t use it for everything, just for a small, albeit important, class of things I want. I have made no promise to use it regularly, but only when I feel motivated and it makes sense for me. So far this has been almost every month, mostly for study time tracking. When I do use it, I’m making a clear and strong commitment to myself. (Next, inspired in part by Jake Jenkins, I plan to beemind my piano playing!)

And by the way, all of this blog post was written with the help of Beeminder. In December I promised to write about this, but nothing really happened until I committed to X amount of words/day through Beeminder in February.

 

Image credit: the interwebs, possibly originally a “demotivational poster”

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  • Jake Jenkins

    Great post Gandalf. I was one of those students that crammed last minute and almost always pulled all-nighters before exams. I wish i could go back to school full-time now that i have discovered self-tracking and Beeminder. I would have learned more, gotten better grades and probably enjoyed the classes more.

    You should totally start practicing piano. I really believe that 15-30 mins of deliberate practice a day will lead to results and is really enjoyable once you get in the habit.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gandalfsaxe Gandalf Saxe

    Thanks Jenkins, I also enjoyed yours.  I’m totally looking forward to practicing piano again. Music creation is something that’s a missing part in my life right now, definitely!

    I’m very thankful that I’ve become conscious about all of this now and not in 10 years; that is a great gift.

  • http://twitter.com/kate_baxter Katherine Baxter

    I highly recommend GradeFix (http://www.gradefix.com/) for scheduling out open-ended study time. You have to get pretty good at estimating how long assignments will take you, but it really helps figure out what to work on when, and whether you’re on track to finish everything by the deadline. My grades went from ~Bs to solid As and A+s when I started using it.

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